Nicodemus – Coward or Heroic Convert

In a few weeks we are teaching New Testament lesson 5, which focuses on two of the most powerful examples of the savior’s personal ministry: His night sermon with Nicodemus, and his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well.  Today, as I was reading about Nicodemus, I was strongly intrigued by his character and the way his story is told.

One thing I find especially intriguing about Nicodemus is that his life can be read in two distinct ways. In the first and perhaps more traditional way of viewing his life, Nicodemus was an individual who tragically could never fully commit to the savior. though the savior personally bore witness to him of his divinity. Nicodemus tepidly stands up for the savior before the Sanhedrin before ultimately backing down, and gives him a gift of embalming spices after his crucifixion — Too little too late. Nicodemus fails to live up to his full potential because he fears for his social prestige and position. This article lays out the scriptural case for this take on Nicodemus.  This interpretation has been propounded by several general authorities including most prominently Spencer W. Kimball

President Kimball powerfully spoke of Nicodemus and his lost potential: ”

O my brother, opportunity’s doors are closing. Why can’t you understand? Too many materialistic obstacles? He knows your influence, wealth, erudition, your exalted place in community, in government, in the powerful church group. . . . Your decision seems weighted with earthly treasures and the plaudits of men and the conveniences of affluence. My heart weeps for you, friend Nicodemus. You seem such a good man, philanthropic, kind, generous. You could have been such a power in the Lord’s kingdom. You had a spark of desire. It could have been kindled into a living flame. You might have been one of his seventies, to proselyte as an advance agent, or an apostle, or even the President of his Church. You might have filled the vacancy when Matthias was called or have been an apostle to the gentiles with Paul and suffered with him in his perils of the sea, among robbers, in prisons, in his beatings and stonings, and even in his death. How little we realize the doors of opportunity which we oft close with one wrong decision. But the price was too high, wasn’t it, man of wealth?”

On the other hand, others read the same verses and see Nicodemus as a courageous individual who converted to the savior and ultimately gave everything for him. Those who favor this interpretation see Nicodemus coming at night to the savior not as an act of cowardice, but instead motivated by a desire to speak one on one with the savior at a less crowded time. They see Nicodemus as putting his life on the line by standing up in the Sanhedrin, and then publicly declaring his belief in the savior by helping prepare him for burial. This article lays out the case for this interpretation. Other leaders of the Church, most prominently Bruce R. McConkie who explained that “We are left to assume that following his interview with Jesus, the processes of conversion continued to operate in the life of Nicodemus.” (Mortal Messiah 1:471). “The faith which had once required the curtain of darkness can now venture at least into the light of sunset, and [be] brightened finally into noonday confidence.” (Mortal Messiah 4: Chapter 109) McConkie relies on possible historical sources which suggest that Nicodemus was a wealthy man who eventually lost all of his fortune and his social position, presumably by following Christ. .

I admit that I personally am far more sympathetic to the more optimistic account. I love to imagine Nicodemus gradually becoming more and more confident in his testimony. I love to imagine in line with Catholic tradition that he was baptized by the apostles and ultimately martyred for his testimony. However, regardless of which version is ultimately correct (or if the truth is somewhere in the middle), I think the story of Nicodemus teaches some powerful truths.

Each of us will have moments in our lives when we will come face to face with the savior. Each of us will be called to sacrifice some things that we care deeply about. We might have to give up popularity of the world. We might have to lose friends. Yet, Christ’s invitation to one and all is to follow him and be baptized and be born again as a disciple. Our choices in those moments determine destiny. Nicodemus faced the choice. He could either be a coward or a hero. Whatever he chose, that same choice standards before us. We must make the choice to follow Christ fully, or to stand on the sidelines and watch.

President Kimball powerfully bore witness of this point:

Now, my beloved, listening friends, you too are generous and kind. You too are prayerful and religious. But are you also like Nicodemus, burdened down with preconceived and prejudiced notions? Do you think that no good thing can come out of Nazareth (John 1:46), or Palmyra, or Salt Lake City? Are you too biased to accept new truth? Too wealthy and fettered with the cares of this world to accept the difficult demands of Christ’s Church? Are you so influential as to fear to prejudice your position or local influence? Are you too weak to accept and carry a load of service? Are you too busy to study and pray and learn of Christ and his program? Are you too materialistically trained to accept the miracles, visions, prophets, and revelations?

If any of you, my listeners, is a modern Nicodemus, I beg of you to grasp the new world of truths. Your Lord Jesus Christ pleads with you:

My true Church is restored to earth with my saving doctrines.
I have placed in authoritative positions apostles and others divinely called, and in leadership a prophet who today receives my divine revelations.
Churches are many, but they are churches of men, not mine.
Creeds are numerous, but they are not of my authorship.
Organizations are everywhere, but they are not organized nor accepted by me.
Pretended and usurping representatives are legion, but I called them not; nor do I recognize their ordinances. My second coming is near at hand.

. . . I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne . . .
He that hath an ear let him hear (Rev. 3:20-22).

This testimony I bear, in the name of Jesus Christ our Master. Amen.”